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Critics: Lawmakers' Self-reform Efforts Fall Short

by Michelle Chen

Feb. 13, 2006 – With two branches of government embroiled in lobbying scandals, several lawmakers have floated proposals for ethics reform in Congress. But clean-government advocacy groups, while supporting the reform efforts, say the fixes currently on the congressional table barely scratch the surface of a system sullied by corporate money.

Currently, several major reform bills are circulating in both chambers of Congress. In addition to legislation introduced by the House and Senate Democratic leaderships, legislators – including Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) and Representatives Marty Meehan (D-Massachusetts) and Christopher Shays (D-Connecticut) – have spearheaded their own proposals.

The bills contain various provisions to limit communications and financial transactions between lobbyists and officials or high-level staff. Many of these initiatives align with reforms pitched by watchdog groups like Public Citizen and the state and national Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG), which have long tracked abuses in the current system. Yet they also reflect political limits on the ethics debate, as systemic reforms to cut money out of lobbying and elections have given way to more limited actions against unethical conduct.

Some of the bills would ban gifts from lobbyists and tighten limits on the funding of trips for officials. Public Citizen reported in January that between 2000 and 2005, members of Congress received an estimated $17.6 million in privately-sponsored free travel, including luxury trips costing several thousand dollars each.

Another proposed reform would address the so-called "revolving door" on Capitol Hill, which enables officials to cross from the government into the lobbying industry. To prevent former staff and officials from wielding old political ties to advance their clients’ interests, all of the major bills would double the "cooling off" period, during which lobbying is forbidden, to two years.

The bills would heed the demands of reform groups by raising requirements for disclosure of lobbying activities. In contrast to the current system of semi-annual paper filing of lobbying-activity records, which are not organized electronically or easily searchable by the public, proposed legislation would mandate quarterly filing into an electronic database.

None of the major reform bills, however, addresses the practice of "bundling," by which political fundraisers – professional lobbyists or others tied to the political elite – amass donations from individuals and funnel them into a candidate’s coffers. While individual donations to candidates are capped at $2,100, fundraisers are free to collect as many individual contributions as possible and take credit for delivering the whole bundle to their candidate.

Highlighting the impact of bundlers, super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s work as a "Pioneer" contributor to the Bush reelection campaign raised a total of between $100,000 and $200,000 by pooling smaller contributions, the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice reported on January 5.

The reform bills maintain the same dollar limit on individual donations to candidates and do not place any restrictions on fundraising events coordinated by lobbyists.

The political and media spotlight has shifted onto government ethics in recent months, thanks to revelations of backdoor political dealings by Abramoff and by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), indicted on corruption charges. However, while heartened by the elevated public scrutiny, longtime advocates for reform say that the underlying ethics problems in Washington extend beyond unscrupulous individuals and taint the entire system.

Gary Kalman, with the state PIRGs’ Democracy Program, said in a statement last week, "While much of the publicity surrounds the illegal activities of Jack Abramoff and certain members of Congress, there are numerous conflicts not covered by the current rules which must be addressed in any reform legislation."

To illustrate, Kalman pointed to an ongoing example of the revolving door that has largely escaped both existing rules and media attention: Alex Flint, Republican staff director of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, announced last December that he would be hired by the lobby group Nuclear Energy Institute and therefore distance himself from legislative work on nuclear issues. But Kalman pointed out last Thursday that Flint has lingered on the Committee, taking advantage of a "transition" period that neatly extends to the new budget process for the Department of Energy. The same department served as a vehicle for billions in nuclear subsidies that Flint’s committee helped secure in the 2005 energy act.

Some reform advocates are concerned that for all the new rules being proposed, politicians in either party may lack incentive to enforce rules against themselves.

Melanie Sloane, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), contended in a January 18 statement on the reform initiatives, "Without oversight or enforcement, rule changes are virtually meaningless."

Senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois) has moved toward addressing the enforcement issue with legislation to establish an independent commission to oversee ethics violations in Congress.

One of the issues that the current lobbying reform measures skirt is comprehensive campaign-finance reform, which advocacy groups say is crucial to preventing politicians with close ties to industry from attaining office in the first place. Watchdogs seek to establish a system for public financing of elections in order to make electoral victories less contingent on connections to wealthy individuals or organizations. Though some states have enacted public campaign-finance laws, cleaning up elections on the federal level remains a distant prospect for reformers.

As a result of this status quo, according to a recent statement by Dana Mason, an advocate with US PIRG, "Candidates who can't compete in the race for big money are weeded out, and Americans are left with fewer genuine representatives to choose from."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


This News Report originally appeared in the February 13, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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